Ekphrasis and endearments

Two falls ago the Endearments made a trip to Durham, NC, for the SAMLA conference, where I read as part of a panel on ekphrastic work chaired by the excellent Chelsea Rathburn. I talked about visual strategies for composition and presentation of poems, and about some submissions venues for that sort of work. But a more basic question floats to the front of the queue: Can a word be considered a work of art, a subject for ekphrasis?

A recent call for one-word poems, from REAEDR at New Lights Press, has me thinking about this again. It is here and worth having a look at: newlightspress.com/reaedr/

In a sense each of the Endearments is in fact an ekphrastic on a particular word—one that, because of its cultural context and the patterns of its use, signifies more and differently than some other kinds of words. Maybe a term of endearment is a work of commonly owned art—like a ballad, just shorter. And, possibly, more directed—that is, its medium being speech or the written word, its audience appears when it is sent to someone through the air, in sound waves, or via the page. Dearest. Bumble bee. Turtle. Little Cupid-arrows of direct address.

Maybe it’s a stretch to suggest this. And one could argue that the intentionally created one-word poem is more work-of-art than the one-word (or few-words) poem arising out of folk tradition. (The classic example from Aram Saroyan is certainly, famously, more costly. And there are class implications, very different ones, around both the value of art and the value of regional speech.)

But the delight is the same, I think. The delight in first finding a term of endearment that is perfect for a particular someone may extend to give that term life as an endearment proper—not just nickname but legitimate word. Wordwork. Artwork?

Saying yes to the endearment as art may seem more natural for people with synesthesia. When I anagram an endearment, I’m seeing the colors of each letter rearrange in relation to one another: it’s a lengthening, an extending, of the color-field of the word. That’s along with, of course, the sounds of the letters, and not to mention the field of cultural implications that come with their collective meaning. The term has more than enough texture, color, material for ekphrasis. And even when I don’t pay a lot of attention to the colors, each poem made from a term of endearment is a reflection and an extension of the word from which it begins—and with which it ends.

 


Valentine

Endearment x letterpress, January 2012
This poem first appeared in Fieralingue‘s 100,000 Poets for Change anthology, fall 2011.

When, in January, I had the chance to set type for the first time, I made the above. I felt giddy all day. I wrote, afterward: I love every letter of the alphabet! In fact, however, the endearment is a kind of lipogram: Many letters are excluded. On account of this, I came very close to running out of several letters. At the end, one V was left in the typecase.

Certain of the letters were not printing as well as others. So, under the advice of Frank Brannon, who is amazing and who perceived just what amount of makeready I was ready to make, I made little cushions for them, squares of newsprint, which I slid under the relevant piece of type. The “r” in “endearment” needed a lift, for instance. This and many more adjustments.

The screen does not do justice to the excitement of feeling those printed letters under my fingertips. Printing enlivens. Printing, be my valentine?


Proposition and experiment

I. Many people will not, of their own accord, look at a poem.

II. Millions of people will, of their own accord, spend lots and lots of time looking at photographs of cats.

III. Therefore, earlier this year, I concluded that the best strategy for increasing the number of viewers for poems would be to print them on top of photographs of cats.

IV. I happen to like looking at both poems and cats.

V. So this is, for me, a win-win situation.

VI. Fortunately, my own cat is a patient model, and (if I am to be believed) quite photogenic.

VII. The aforementioned cat is Tisko Tansi, small hero.

VII. Thus I present to you (albeit in digital rather than physical form) an Endearments broadside, featuring a poem that originally appeared in BlazeVOX spring 2011.

VIII. If you want to share a copy of this image, please ask first. If you want a real copy, you can ask about that too.


Poetic objects

The endearments lend themselves particularly to the world of things. At least, I have found it easier to work with them visually than with other poems of late. I’ve printed them on top of old photographs, and on the pages of old natural-history textbooks. And I’ve printed them on top of newer images too. These objects, even the digitally created ones, are of the physical world rather than the virtual one. This is important. In an essay for Fringe,On Poetic Objects and Poetic Economies,” I consider the advantages and challenges of bringing poems into the visual world:

If I could think of the poems as objects, I said to a friend, a visual artist, this past spring, they would take up as much room as objects do in my mind, and then I would need fewer things in my life. Fewer artifacts waiting to become art.

After exploring cheap art, poems on cards, broadsides, I allow myself a bit of exhortation on these objects’ behalf:

After it’s had the chance to live online a while, affix your poem to a page. One you can give out, or barter for snacks or a drink, or sell for a few bucks. . . . And if you are one of the fine folks who are doing something like this already, for your own work or for that of others, in your living room or in a letterpress studio, I applaud you. Don’t stop. . . .

Make it. Allow it to exist in time, and try again. And try new things, and get better.

It’s easier to get away with such imperatives if you’ve followed your own advice. In the case of poetic objects, though, the physical evidence necessarily has a smaller audience than the html-encoded call to action. So I am offering a partial fix. Shortly I’ll post the digital iteration of a broadside I made of the “beloved” endearment. I printed it on pale grey, textured paper, and I handed it out at the 2011 West Chester University poetry conference. Now it will live here too, but it is better in person.